What Faye Dunaway's NYC Housing Court Case Teaches about Public Records

The New York Times picked up the story of actress Faye Dunaway's travails in New York City Housing Court today. While an interesting read for movie fans (and people in the New York City rental market), the article is perhaps a more interesting read for public records researchers since it illustrates the type of records available in specialized courts and highlights the circumstances under which certain types of records can be accessed. First, housing court.  New York City Housing Court is a specialized court within the New York civil court system.  These types of courts are responsible for adjudicating cases brought under particular statutes and are named for their focus.  New York City Housing Court deals with landlord-tenant disputes in New York City.  The court maintains its own indexes and warehouses its own records.  Bigger picture: When conducting a subject specific court search, make sure you search all of the specialized court indexes where the subject has lived and operated.  Other examples of specialized courts include family courts (handle divorce and family matters), juvenile courts (juvenile matters and usually not public) as well as United States Tax Court and the United States Court of Federal Claims.  We'll do more on US Tax Court and the Court of Federal Claims in future entries.  For more on New York City Housing Court, see this useful guide prepared by the court system.

As to the key public (and non-public) records raised in the Dunaway case, Dunaway's landlord, according to The Times, contends she owns a home in West Hollywood, a fact that can be established with records (deeds, deeds of trust, etc.) available at the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder's office.  Dunaway's landlord also asserted that Dunaway has received two California moving violations in the past few years.  This can be established by searching Los Angeles County Superior Court records since a moving violation gets charged and docketed in the criminal court.

Two additional pieces of evidence Dunaway's landlord introduced (voter and vehicle registration) are not as clearly "public":

  • In the case of voter registration, California (and many other states) have strict limitations on who is entitled to access to these records.  Researchers with a political purpose are typically allowed to view the records.  Others seeking access usually need a statutory reason. Very often, on-going legal cases or investigations being pursued for a civil or criminal case will compel a Registrar of Voters to provide the data.
  • Car registration is different. This data is never considered a public record and is available only under circumstances defined in statute and by Department of Motor Vehicles rule.